REVIEW – ‘Isle of Dogs’

The notion of an “auteur director” is a simple one. It applies to a filmmaker with an unmistakable style and flair, with each film easily distinguishable as coming from that particular master. Some dismiss this as tiresome, in that all films from that auteur look and feel the same. There’s truth to that with the work of Wes Anderson, a director I’ve personally struggled with in the past. I get why people adore his work. There is unabashed quirk and charm to everything he delivers, sometimes a little too much. He’s a hipster’s god of cinema, and, for better or worse, you cannot deny his attention to detail is astonishing.

Anderson’s meticulousness is on display in the dazzling and charming Isle of Dogs, his second adventure into the painstaking world of stop-motion animation. In 2009, he delivered the supremely bizarre Fantastic Mr. Fox, which still stands as one of the most underrated animated films of the 21st century. But he cranks up the weird with his latest endeavour, crafting something even stranger, yet entirely captivating and ultimately incredibly satisfying, especially if you’re a canine lover.

Set 20 years in the future, in the fictitious Japanese land of Megasaki City, through a prologue we learn the powerful, feline-loving Kobayashi dynasty has long fought a war against the canine population of the city. With dog population reaching a saturation point, a mysterious outbreak of dog flu, known as “snout fever,” causes panic amongst the metropolis. Suspiciously seizing the moment, the town’s corrupt and fear-mongering Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) orders the infected pooches to be exiled to the nearby Trash Island, a desolate wasteland stacked high with compacted cubes of garbage, akin to the future Earth of WALL·E.

The first banished dog is Spots (Liev Schreiber), an adorable hound who just so happens to be the cherished protector and companion of the Mayor’s orphaned nephew, 12-year-old Atari (Koyu Rankin), whose parents were killed in a tragic accident when he was a young boy. Defying his Uncle, Atari sets off on a daring expedition to locate his beloved watchdog and consequently crash-lands his tiny plane on Trash Island. Coming to his aid are the island’s band of alpha dogs, who have heard rumours of Spot joining a pack of vicious cannibal dogs, living in an abandoned plant at the tip of the island.

Leading the rag-tag group of misfit canines is Rex (Edward Norton), who longs for the old days when dogs were still man’s best friend. By his side are former baseball mascot Boss (Bill Murray), who still can’t let go of his team’s jersey, former Doggy Chop spokesdog King (Bob Balaban), and Duke (Jeff Goldblum), who has a serious affinity for gossip, constantly spouting the line “You’ve heard the rumour, right?” Also spotting the downed plane and joining the group is Chief (Bryan Cranston), a dirt-covered and battle-weary stray, who suffers from a damaged past (“I’m not a violent dog, I don’t know why I bite.”), showcasing his contradictory character of equal parts brash bravado and crushing vulnerability.

As Atari and his new canine pals head off on an epic journey to discover Spots’ whereabouts, back in Megasaki City, American foreign exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) is beginning to uncover the villainous plans of Mayor Kobayashi. As he begins his campaign for re-election, spurred by his success in eradicating the city of its diseased pooch problem, Tracy is determined to expose the conspiracy behind the snout fever outbreak and stop Kobayashi before he can unleash a wave of robot dogs and weaponised drones to eliminate the inhabitants of Trash Island for good.

So, let’s get right to the elephant in the room. There’s already been plenty of backlash regarding this film’s cultural appropriation of Japan. As a caucasian, it’s clearly not my place to judge if this criticism is valid or not. Yes, Anderson does certainly tend to highlight only the most stereotypical aspects of Japanese culture. Sumo wrestling, kabuki theatre, cherry blossoms, sushi, taiko drummers, people talking in haiku. Even Yoko Ono turns up, at one point. They’re all on display here and can often feel more like a white tourist’s interpretation of Japan, as opposed to genuine representation. Personally, it feels like the episode of The Simpsons where the family journeyed to Australia and were treated to koalas, kangaroos, Crocodile Dundee-sounding locals, and Fosters beer.

Yes, those things exist in Australia, and yes, Anderson’s choices of Japanese iconography in Isle of Dogs obviously do exist in Japan. However, for the natives of these places, seeing your country displayed in such a reductive way can be terribly frustrating and borderline offensive. There’s a fine line between respectful appreciation and bastardised cliché. The team behind Pixar’s Coco seemed to understand this. Wes Anderson, not quite so much. There’s nothing inherently wrong with his depiction of Japan. It’s based on fact, as all stereotypes are. It’s easily identifiable to a non-Japanese audience. And it shows he clearly has a love of the country and its gorgeous culture. But it does beg the unavoidable question – was this film set in Japan just for the chance to appropriate the quirky culture for a visual aesthetic?

Regardless, the end result is visually stunning. Production designers Adam Stockhausen and Paul Harrod must immediately jump to the head of the pack for next year’s Oscars. Every single frame of Isle of Dogs comes alive with their impressive world-building, which never looks anything other than spectacular. From the garbage-filled landscapes of Trash Island, particularly a glorious shack made of colourful saki bottles, to the expansive settings in Megasaki City, each locale is designed with extreme intricacy and meticulous care. Just imagining the man-hours put into this film is enough to make your head hurt. Their work creates an exhausting treasure-trove of details you’ll want to uncover in multiple viewings.

The work of puppet design master Andy Gent also deserves high praise, with over 1,000 incredible puppet creations on display over the course of the film. Whether it’s the beautiful doll-esque humans or the lovable shaggy mutts, each puppet manages its own distinct design and character, creating something hugely accessible for even the least ardent of stop-motion animation fan. The painstaking process of bringing these characters to life took two years to create, and it should never be lost on an audience member the effort it has taken to craft something in stop-motion.

As with all Anderson films, he’s assembled an incredible ensemble cast to voice these characters. There’s likely to be some flack around the dogs being voiced exclusively by white actors and the fact they all speak English, despite hailing from Japan. But applying logic to the spoken language of an animated dog is rather redundant, no? Thankfully, the Japanese humans all stick to their native language, which often goes completely untranslated for the audience. For the key moments, there is translation, provided by Frances McDormand, no less. However, the bulk of the human dialogue is left for those not Japanese-fluent to decipher for themselves. Somehow, this is never jarring or confusing. It works perfectly.

There’s also a whole host of delicious cameos doting the landscape of Isle of Dogs. Scarlett Johansson voices Nutmeg, a former glamourous but street-smart show dog who catches Chief’s eye. F. Murray Abraham turns up as Jupiter, one of the island’s wise elder statesman. Perfectly narrating the entire saga are the dulcet tones of Courtney B. Vance. And, perhaps stealing the entire film, Tilda Swinton voices the mystical pug Oracle, whose impressive visions of the future are really just cobbled together from her incessant TV-watching. There’s even a credited role for Angelica Huston as “Mute Poodle.” Oh, Wes Anderson. Never change.

Anderson’s screenplay is deeply multi-layered, standing as both a fluffy comedy and a deeply serious political statement. Sure, you could easily view Isle of Dogs as a cute, little animated flick about a group of dogs who help reunite a little boy with his missing pet. But dig a little deeper and there’s plenty of social parallels to be found hiding underneath the fur. Mayor Kobayashi’s nefarious use of fear-inducing and hateful propaganda to manipulate the foolish masses to bow to his will draw strong comparisons with many political leaders currently in charge. So too the idea of deporting those who don’t fit the ideal mould of a society controlled by a maniacal dictator. Sound familiar?

But there’s a problematic element to his narrative in the form of Tracy being the real hero of the piece. It’s a twist on the “white man savior” problem, given she’s a female. Perhaps Anderson thought this was enough to avoid this baffling pitfall. Why she couldn’t have been Japanese is beyond me. Tracy is the only white person in Isle of Dogs, and, of course, she’s the savior. She’s the only one wise enough to cotton on to Kobayashi’s plan and rally the masses to her cause. Not one of the citizens of Megasaki City. Not the scientists studying snout fever. Or any of Kobayahi’s aides. The white girl is the one to save the day. Sigh. And, while this undoubtably looks aestically cool, Tracy sports a huge afro atop her head. At one point, she even defiantly raises her hand in a Black Power-style salute. Talk about cultural appropriation.

Isle of Dogs clearly has a few flaws, but none which ever prove fatal to the overall enjoyment of the film. The visual mastery is more than enough to be swept away by, as are the gorgeous performances from the sublime voice cast. This will no doubt become another piece of cinema hipsters will flock to, but it’s still entirely congenial enough for anyone to access. Well, except little kids. It may be filled with animated dogs, but this is not a film intended for the little ones. There are few directors who can delight like Wes Anderson, and he does it again with his latest absurd creation. Good boy.

★★★


Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Cast: Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Kunichi Nomura, Akira Takayama, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Akira Ito, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, Yoko Ono, Tilda Swinton, Ken Watanabe, Mari Natsuki, Fisher Stevens, Nijiro Murakami, Liev Schreiber, Courtney B. Vance
Director: Wes Anderson
Screenplay: Wes Anderson
Story: Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, Kunichi Nomura
Producers: Wes Anderson, Scott Rudin, Steven Rales, Jeremy Dawson
Cinematography: Tristan Oliver
Production Design: Adam Stockhausen, Paul Harrod
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Editors: Andrew Weisblum, Ralph Foster, Edward Bursch
Running Time: 101 minutes
Release Date: 12th April 2018 (Australia)

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